BAKU (Reuters) - Police beat and detained demonstrators in the capital of Azerbaijan on Saturday after a protest against a disputed presidential vote that gave President Ilham Aliyev a third consecutive term in the oil-producing former Soviet republic.
Reuters witnesses saw police kick and thump protesters as scuffles broke out following the rally, which drew thousands in protest at the election dismissed by international monitors and government critics as unfair.
News agency Interfax-Azerbaijan reported that around 10 people were arrested. Reuters was unable to immediately confirm the number.
Billions of dollars in oil revenues have flowed into the strategically located South Caucasus country, boosting living standards and its international clout, since Aliyev succeeded his father a decade ago. Official results show Aliyev won with 85 percent of the vote.
But a gaping divide between rich and poor, and allegations that the authorities carried out a pre-election crackdown on dissent that doubled the country’s number of political prisoners, have attracted criticism at home and abroad.
Around 4,000 people gathered at the sanctioned protest, accusing the government of vote fraud and demanding a new poll.
“Aliyev and his New Azerbaijan Party will answer for their actions and for trampling on the rights of the Azeri people,” defeated opposition candidate Jamil Hasanly told the crowd.
“(They) are responsible for the condition that Azerbaijan’s people are in,” said the 61-year-old former parliamentarian, who managed to unite a fractured opposition for the first time in a presidential poll, scoring around 5 percent of the vote.
Hasanly has promised to challenge the results in court.
Protesters alleged dozens of cases of ballot stuffing, multiple voting and police interference.
Natavan Salimzade, a college teacher, said she was instructed to vote for Aliyev or lose her job and that she was to take a picture of her marked ballot to prove that she had followed instructions.
She said she disobeyed and voted for Hasanly.
“Of course I’ll get fired now, somehow, one way or another. I’ll be implicated in some scandal,” she said at the protest in a soccer stadium far from the designer boutiques and five-star hotels that have come to symbolize the influx of oil revenues enjoyed by the country’s elite.
“But I’m not afraid for myself anymore. I’m only worried about my children,” she said, crying.
International monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the vote was marred by a “restrictive media environment” and allegations of intimidation of candidates and voters.
The OSCE monitors said they reported clear indications of ballot-stuffing at 37 polling stations, and said the counting was assessed negatively at an unprecedented 58 per cent of stations observed.
The election commission said no electoral violations were reported. The presidential office said the poll was open and transparent and called the OSCE statement prejudiced, politicized and of “the theatre of the absurd”.
Editing by Tom Pfeiffer